Discussing the US Elections. Voters, Expertise and a Changing Society

Am Donnerstag den 20. Oktober 2016 lud die Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Berlin zu einem transatlantischen Frühstück. Über Kaffee und Croissants wurden dort die anstehenden US-Wahlen diskutiert. Bruce Stokes vom PEW ResearchCenter und Jürgen Tritten vom Bündnis90/Die Grünen gaben zu Beginn einen kurzen Input und warfen erste Fragen für das nachfolgende Gespräch auf. Stokes hatte für seine Präsentation viele Statistiken und Umfrageanalysen mitgebracht. Gleichzeitig wurde in der Debatte auch deutlich, dass derartige Expertise in vielen Teilen der Bevölkerung immer mehr infrage gestellt wird. Das Verhältnis zwischen Experten/Expertise, Öffentlichkeit und Politik, so scheint es, wird aktuell neu verhandelt. Dies hat nicht nur für die Präsidentschaftswahlen in den USA, sondern auch für das politische Klima in vielen europäischen Ländern weitreichende Konsequenzen. Da ich mich in meinem eigenen Dissertationsprojekt mit der Geschichte von Statistiken auseinandersetze, stellt sich mir zudem die Frage, ob es sich dabei um ein neuartiges Phänomen handelt. Expertise etwa in Form von statistischen Daten wurde schon immer auch in Frage gestellt. Neu ist hingegen die allgegenwärtige Verfügbarkeit derartigen Wissens bei gleichzeitigem großen Misstrauen gegenüber denjenigen, die dieses bereitstellen oder für ihre eigenen Argumente heranziehen. Im Folgenden findet sich eine kurze Zusammenfassung der Diskussionen beim transatlantischen Frühstück.


Discussing the US Elections. Voters, Expertise and a Changing Society

The Berlin based Heinrich Böll Stiftung hosted a transatlantic breakfast on Thursday 20 October 2016 to discuss the upcoming US elections with Jürgen Trittin (Green Party) and Bruce Stokes (PEW ResearchCenter). Stokes stated early on that, in his opinion and based on PEW’s polling results, there is a huge divide within the American electorate. The division runs mostly along partisan lines and has huge ramifications for the way people perceive the world they live in. Stokes believed that a person is most likely to vote for the party that responds to that specific perception of reality. According to him, this helps explain why “old white men” tend to vote for Trump. This demographic, he explained, yearns for a roll-back to the 1950s, which was a great time for them. Since then they have been confronted with the dismantling of traditional manufacturing jobs and an increasingly diverse society. Older men in particular find themselves questioning their role as men in society when their wages are no longer enough to support a family. Wives do not only want to, but often have to seek employment in order to contribute to the family income. When these people follow Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign they are actually telling everyone else that they cannot get over these changes. While Stokes and Trittin did not condone these sentiments, they did agree that politicians need to take those kinds of worries seriously.

Hillary Clinton on the other hand has unprecedentedly high approval rates among white educated women. At the same time, her chances of winning depend above all on whether those likely to vote for her will actually cast their votes on election day. Stokes explained that she is doing well among black and Hispanic voters. In 2012, 66 per cent of blacks voted, which was the highest rate ever. It is questionable, though, if these voters will turn out in high numbers when they will be faced with voting for a white woman (as opposed to Barack Obama in 2012). Also, Hispanic voters support Clinton by a majority, but they do not tend to turn out on election day. The same is true for “millennials” – people born sometime between the early 1980s and late 1990s – who mostly support Clinton but are also the demographic who are the least likely to go voting at all: only 46 per cent voted in the last election and it is expected that this year the number might be even lower.

When asked whether there is a difference between Trump and the German AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), Trittin and Stokes both highlighted a similarity in voter patterns: voters for Trump as well as for the AfD often consider themselves the “losers” in modern society. In Germany, however, Stokes also sees strong anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and anti-Brussels sentiments among AfD voters. These topics are not as important among the US conservative electorate. Trittin emphasized the point that it has been known for roughly 20 years that people with anti-immigration or anti-semitic views make up about 20 per cent of the electorate. Up until a few years ago these people still found themselves voting CDU/CSU who, for reasons that still need to be discussed, do not appeal to that electorate anymore.

Another topic that was only discussed briefly is that of a lack of communication between people from different political backgrounds and an alarming lack of trust in institutions, facts and expertise. Stokes himself works in a research center that publishes large amounts of polling results online for everyone to see. He stressed that the transatlantic breakfast consisted of participants that might be considered to be part of the elite, as those kinds of people who have somehow managed to be successful within today’s society. Those who feel left behind do not take part in these kinds of discussions. It seems as though we are living in a world in which information is ubiquitous and readily available for everyone, yet conversations across divided political lines have never been more difficult.

This is especially true for the United States, where media outlets are firmly divided along political lines. These lines are rarely crossed while the respective programs and publications almost operate in different universes. What is perceived as relevant truths, facts and content is often completely different from one news station to the next (see this clip from MSNBC that tackles the issue from a liberal view point).

The situation in Germany is so far not quite comparable but the number of people who rely on information sources that belittle, question or reject mainstream media seems to be steadily growing. Similar to Trump’s tactics, expertise and verifiable facts are constantly labelled as fraud or, as in Germany, defamed as “Lügenpresse”. Holding mainstream media accountable for their accuracy and reliability for political, economic or social representations is in itself part of democratic processes; however, the outright rejection of any statements from different points of view solely based on the claim that they are all lies anyway chokes off all discussions before they can even begin.

It will be a great challenge in Europe as well as in the US to confront this increasing distrust of institutions. It is exactly that kind of environment in which Donald Trump’s allegations of voter fraud in the general election – without any proof thereof – can gain momentum in the first place. All participants of the transatlantic breakfast agreed, however, that these tendencies will not go away should Clinton win. They might, in fact, get stronger.


2 Gedanken zu „Discussing the US Elections. Voters, Expertise and a Changing Society“

  1. Anne, as an American living in Florida, I have to agree with your insight. This is like no election I’ve ever witnessed. The polarity amongst the voters is astounding. Although perfect strangers will eagerly bring up this election, I’ve found that nobody wants to have a real conversation in which there is sharing of ideas and careful consideration of opposing viewpoints. Instead, most everyone has already made up their minds and only seek information that confirms their beliefs, truth be damned.
    Have you seen or heard anything about the skillful way that Trump shapes others‘ opinions about his opponents? He uses adjectives (Crooked Hillary, lying press, Low-energy Jeb, Little Marco) over and over again until people start believing the descriptions. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a kernel of truth to the description – it’s like they’re being brainwashed or hypnotized. Very scary.

    1. Nancy, thank you for your reply. It is interesting to see that your personal experiences correspond to the scientific analysis of the situation. At the same time, the mere fact that you commented on this topic gave me pause. Because however true it might be that Trump and the right-wing populist movements in general make it harder to communicate among divided political lines, their reckless tactics still incite debates. The two of us, for example, have never discussed politics like this before. So maybe this could also be seen as a chance to open up a debate about the culture of communication in general. I think many people feel that a lot of lines have been crossed lately and just as many do not feel comfortable with that. See, for example, this mind-boggling list of insults Trump has used in the past months: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/28/upshot/donald-trump-twitter-insults.html. As much name-calling as there is going on right now, there are still a lot of people willing to call them out on that.

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